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The far-off future of genetic engineering sometimes sounds unreal: scientists hope to one day cure cancer and increase the bounty of crops just by snipping out one gene and replacing it with another using gene-editing techniques like Crispr.
While we're not quite there yet, some of the experiments already underway are beginning to sound a little like the plot for a follow-up to The Fly.
Bringing back the dinosaurs is a long-standing sci-fi trope—it is symbolic of the triumph of the power of science over nature, the ability of man to transcend not only death but extinction. And that's why it's no surprise that a team of Harvard researchers led by pioneering geneticist George Church wants to bring the long-extinct woolly mammoth back, or at least a piece of it. Using Crispr, his team succeeded last year at inserting mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair length, and hair color into the DNA of elephant skin cells. The idea is to help elephants survive better in colder climates where they face fewer threats from mankind—and maybe even one day revive those ancient beasts.
Chinese scientists engineered a pair of beagles named Hercules and Tiangou last fall to be twice as strong as they would be normally. The researchers were more interested in developing ways to prevent muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's disease than giving Superman a super-strength canine sidekick. Still, it's not hard to imagine Hercules and Tiangou creating a craze for super-strong designer pets. Scientists accomplished the feat by using Crispr to switch off a gene called myostatin that regulates the amount of muscle fiber produced, kicking its production into high gear.
Speaking of designer pets, last fall another group of Chinese scientists used a different gene-editing technology called Talens to turn an already small breed of pig, Bama, into micro pigs. With a steep price tag of $1,600, owners can also specify their piglet's desired color and coat pattern. Other scientists, though, were not so thrilled about this use of a very powerful gene-editing technology. “It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” German geneticist Jens Boch told Nature.
The hearty passenger pigeon, at one time the most abundant species in the world, went extinct in the 19th century. But researchers at a company called Revive and Restore are hoping to revive it. By tweaking the genome of modern pigeon species, researchers think they can come close to recreating their long-dead cousins.
In October, a team of scientists at Harvard Medical School (led again by George Church) used Crispr to edit 62 genes in pig cells at once—a tremendous feat of genetic engineering. The idea was to make pig organs suitable for transplantation into humans. The experiment, scientists said, brought us one step closer to growing human organs in abundance.
In nature, some species, like snails, naturally change gender in order to reproduce. In a Virginia lab, scientists were able to artificially spur the same changes in mosquitos. By identifying the gene responsible for gender determination, they were able to use Crispr to knock out a gene that turned the mosquitos female and then add it back in again to make it male. The sex-changing mosquito isn't just a cool party trick. Since only female mosquitos transmit disease, controlling gender could enable scientists to control the spread of diseases like the Zika virus.